Some ethical decisions are simple: Did you tell the truth? Did you tell the entire truth for an authentic outcome, or did you employ â€œsleight of hand?â€ Â (A topic for another day, as nothing annoys me further than a person who tells a bold-faced lie with an air of moral superiority, along with an excuse for why their fibbing â€œis the noble and right thing to do.â€) Would the decision embarrass you if your mother were watching? Or your children? Or if it were exposed on the news?
Other questions are more difficult. For example, would it surprise you to learn that many great business leaders are actually very poor communicators and speakers? Why do we not know this? Because the burgeoning industry of ghostwriting has become these executivesâ€™ means of communicating their words to the world.
My friend and collaborator Dr. David Gruder, â€œAmericaâ€™s Integrity Expert,â€ and I have been engaging in a lively discussion of late about the question of ghostwriting and the ethical considerations involved.
For some circumstances, the concept of ghostwriting is fully expected, as in the writing of presidential speeches. â€œGhostwriterâ€ has even progressed to a commonly accepted job and function with no embarrassment attached (although even those who proudly proclaim the title will generally consider it in bad form to identify whom their clients may be.)
For others, thereâ€™s a veil of pretense. The use of a hired writer is considered a secret that is shared in a conspiratorial whisper, as in, â€œDid you know it wasnâ€™t really HIM who wrote that best selling book?â€
Is it wrong to use a ghostwriter? Â Is it wrong to be a ghostwriter? My personal opinion is this:
Collaboration with a professional writer is a wonderful concept and a tremendously effective means of getting the great thinking of a great leader into the words and format that will be interesting to readers, and will make the material memorable and compelling to share. In the world of communication, itâ€™s an extremely valuable service, whether for a book, an article or a speech.
However, Ghostwriting, when it means the creation of material without the participation of the represented author, or without disclosing having utilized a ghostwriter, is a terrible idea, and in my opinion, an ethical breach, especially when non-transparent ghostwriting is used to promote a leaderâ€™s or public figureâ€™s image or brand.
One thing that invites ghostwriting murkiness is that many people who believe they need a ghostwriter are in actuality looking for a skilled collaborator to help them create copy that does the most justice to their ideas and words. This of course is not a problem. The ethical breach is asking an imposter to create material and then pretending that it was written by the person who hired the ghostwriter.
In the new world of communication, where everybody is a publisher, what do professional journalists say? Regardless of staffersâ€™ opinions, in the case of the Forbes Contributor community, ghostwriting is expressly and even contractually forbidden. In fact, the publishing interface periodically requires contributors to re-verify â€œthe words on this page are my own content, my own words and my own opinionsâ€ before they are allowed to press â€œsend.â€Â (That is not to say that no content on Forbes has ever been ghostwritten, but when this has occurred it has been a direct violation of Forbesâ€™s explicit ethics and contract.)
Via the University of Oregon, here are the ethical questions to ask from a journalism perspective (paraphrased) from Richard L. Johannesenâ€™s book Ethics in Human Communications:
Ethical Guidelines for Ghostwriting
- What is the communicatorâ€™s intent and what is the audienceâ€™s degree of awareness? In other words, does the communicator pretend to be the author of the words he speaks or over which his signature appears? And how aware is the audience that ghostwriting is commonplace under certain circumstances? If we assume, as most do, that presidential speeches are ghostwritten, then the only unethical act would be for the President to claim to author his own speeches.
- Does the communicator use ghostwriters to make himself or herself appear to possess personal qualities that he or she does not really have? In other words, does the writer impart such qualities as eloquence, wit, coherence and incisive ideas to a communicator who otherwise possesses none of those traits? The ethicality decreases with the degree of the â€œstretch.â€
- What are the surrounding circumstances of the communicatorâ€™s job that make ghostwriting a necessity? Busy executives such as a president may not have the time to write all of the messages they must deliver day to day. However, we donâ€™t expect the average office manager or university professor to hire a ghostwriter. Part of the answer lies in the pressures of the job itself, coupled with the need and frequency of communication.
- To what extent do the communicators actively participate in the writing of their own messages? Obviously, the more input a communicator has in his or her own writing, the more ethical the resulting image. We really donâ€™t expect presidents to write their own speeches, for example, but we do expect that the sentiments expressed are their own.
- Does the communicator accept responsibility for the message he or she presents? When former president Ronald Reaganâ€™s press secretary, Larry Speakes, disclosed in his book that many of the quotes attributed to the President were, in actuality, either made up or â€œborrowedâ€ from someone else, he caused quite an ethical uproar. Part of the problem with Larry Speakesâ€™ revelation was that the President denied the accusation. In other words, he claimed he never approved Speakesâ€™ work. Most communicators simply assume that whatever they say or whatever they sign their names to becomes â€œtheirs,â€ (in both responsibility and ownership) whether written by someone else or not. This is the most ethical position to take, Johannesen maintains.
I like these perspectives with the possible exception of point #5. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of a collaborator to fact check the citations they bring forward. Dr. Gruder asserts that when someone chooses to use words written for them by someone else, the very act of doing this means they have taken full responsibility for the accuracy of the content, and for their message being authentically aligned with their own values, beliefs and opinions.
He goes on to cite as an example the relationship between President Kennedy and Ted Sorensen. Sorensen was not merely President Kennedyâ€™s ghostwriter, who was responsible for so many of Kennedyâ€™s most famous phrases. Sorensen was one of Kennedyâ€™s key advisors.
Gruder views this as a prototype for an ethical ghostwriting relationship: â€œPresident Kennedy appears, from my own recollections and insider accounts that Iâ€™ve read, to have spoken what was authentically true for him even when the perspectives and the words he used to express them were written by Sorensen. Kennedy also did not keep it secret that Sorensen was one of his key advisors and his chief speechwriter. So, it seems reasonable and ethical to me that even when Sorensen wrote the words, Kennedy rightly claimed Sorensenâ€™s as his own because the words reflected his truth. What makes this ethical behavior is that he was transparent about Sorensenâ€™s role in crafting the words.â€
Ultimately, a communicator should accept responsibility for the veracity of any information they share. But if communicators acknowledge collaboration, as they should, it would also be appropriate to acknowledge in honesty when a missed fact check within the organization created an accuracy breach (as opposed to a blanket denial of responsibility or a purposeful lie). Thereâ€™s probably not a need to name names in a case like this, but it is never appropriate to cover up a misstep with a lie.
I also like the recommendations of Steve Farnsworth of Jolt Communications via Ragan Communications:
â€œIf someone directly asks you whether you write your postsâ€”or any content with your name on itâ€”you should be honest about the process. In the age of social media, the truth is compulsory. It is important to choose a process you feel comfortable sharing publicly because someone will ask you about it.â€
When Farnsworth writes on behalf of a client, he uses one of the following scenarios (which are the strategies I have always favored as well):
- I interview the client to get his thoughts, and then write the piece. Then I have the client review the piece and give feedback.
- I have the client write the first draft and then I edit or rewrite as needed. Then I have the client review and give feedback.
- I have the client bullet-point or outline her thoughts, and then I write the piece and have the client give feedback.
In all three of these cases, the final product is based on the clientsâ€™ ideas, and is often also based on their words. In every case the client has read the pieces, given feedback and approved final copy.Â Dr. Gruder confirms that this describes the protocol he also uses when he has advised and ghost-written for individuals and organizations.
In summary, the ethics of ghostwriting is clearly a complicated question that is difficult to distill to a single black and white choice. Transparency is a virtue, and great communicators and authors are happy to give credit due when there are other writers involved. And collaboration is a beautiful thing.
Finally, as I give credit to my own collaborator, Dr. David Gruder, I would like to mention that Dr. G will be presenting a TEDX talk on March 15, 2014, at TEDxEncinitas about the social dynamics that can rob people of their personal power and how to reclaim it. This is not to be missed (and the reminder is my personal expression of an unvarnished truth) via www.TEDxencinitas.com. What is your own opinion of ghostwriting? I welcome your comments below.
Article By: Cheryl Conner